Featured,  View from the Water

Saying au revoir to my wetsuit

“Do you ever want to swim the Channel?” It is a question I often get asked, and up until the last week the answer was always a resounding no. Too far, too dirty, too much training – but most of all too cold. I have a confession to make: this summer I have become a neoprene fetishist. Despite being a relatively experienced cold water skins swimmer (I swim all year in my local, unheated lido and have competed in ice swimming competitions in Latvia and Poland), I have never been very good at distances in the cold. A quick dip in freezing water is all well and good, but when I try and complete longer distances in cool water my body rebels. Partly this is down to lack of natural padding (this year exacerbated by some pretty intense running training) and partly lack of acclimatisation. I make no excuses – this year I have wussed out of the cold.

But last Wednesday I crewed for my friend Kerry O’Hara on her successful English Channel crossing. And now there is a little bit of me that really, really wants to be a Channel swimmer.
The whole experience of being support crew on a Channel swim is pretty intense and not a little bit surreal. The only people who usually meet in car parks in the middle of the night are drug dealers and doggers. But at midnight on Wednesday myself, Kerry, and the three other support crew members were sat in our cars in Dover Marina car park. As the time to set off came closer, Kerry got changed into her swimming costume and, under a bright moon, I rubbed suncream onto her back. Once on the boat, Anastasia, we rigged up glowsticks all along one side so Kerry would be able to see the boat in the darkness of the Channel. Then, as we neared Samphire Hoe, she got into the water and swam to the beach illuminated by a bright searchlight. She stood up, waved, and then set off to swim the 21 miles to France.

The next 12 hours and 46 minutes were taken up with preparing feeds and finding more and more ingenious ways of encouraging her and keeping her spirits up (unbelievably, Zoe Ball didn’t respond to our request for a shout out on her Radio 2 breakfast show). For the first few hours Kerry swam in the dark, illuminated only by a flashing green light on her goggles and a glowstick attached to her bum. Ferries lit up like cities glided past us. I managed to catch some sleep and woke up to find that dawn had broken. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the sea was calm and flat. Ships that looked like islands hovered on the horizon. Despite jellyfish stings Kerry was still swimming strongly. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to want to swim from England to France.

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even hours into the swim Kerry decided that she wanted me to get in with her at her next feed. Channel Rules state that support swimmers cannot touch the swimmer or swim ahead of them. If they do then the Channel swimmer is disqualified. The next hour was one of the most enjoyable but stressful swims of my life as I concentrated on swimming close enough for Kerry to see me but not so close that I inadvertently touched her. And it was difficult to regulate my pace and not go ahead of her because she had been swimming for eight hours and I was fresh and wearing a speedy wetsuit.

Which brings me back to the main barrier to me swimming the Channel: it is too cold. So to toughen myself up I have entered the 2km Macmillan Lido Challenge at Tooting Lido. My challenge will be to swim it skins. In October. I am praying that this week’s sunny weather turns into an Indian summer and raises the water temperature from its October average of 12 degrees Celsius. I have been leaving my wetsuit at home and upping the distances I am swimming without it – and I am finding that my body has a memory of the cold as I seem to be acclimatising quite quickly. All those winters of swimming in 2 degrees water have obviously had a lasting effect – I know I can swim in water much colder than this. And after a summer encased in my neoprene comfort blanket, I have to admit it is nice to feel chill water on my skin. One of the joys of swimming all year round is to feel the changing of the seasons as the water cools and warms up.

My other tactic for the Macmillan Lido Challenge is to swim as though I am being chased by a polar bear: sprinting for 2km should generate a bit of heat. And I will up the recommended two hats to as many as will fit on my head before I succumb to concussion.

But back to the Channel. Tempting as it now is, the Channel is somewhat longer than 2km. So I have to find a way of swimming it in a wetsuit without losing too much kudos. Only one solution… where do I sign up for the Arch to Arc?
Join me and take part in the Macmillan Lido Challenge at Tooting, Lewes, Cheltenham or Letchworth. Sign uphere.